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February 11: Thomas Alva Edison and the Jews

Lawrence Bush
February 11, 2017
Thomas Alva Edison, modern history’s most prolific and tranformational inventor, with a record 1,093 patents to his name, was born in Milan, Ohio on this date in 1847. Edison (not Jewish) invented an early motion picture camera and projector in the late 19th century, which soon brought him into conflict with Carl Laemmle and numerous other pioneering movie-makers, many of them Jews, from whom Edison expected royalties. In 1908, the inventor established the Motion Picture Patents Company, aka the Edison Trust, with the major American film companies, the main movie distributor, and Eastman Kodak, the main supplier of film. The trust lasted only ten years, however -- bringing 289 lawsuits -- and served mostly to retard its own members’ entry into feature filmmaking and to drive Jewish moviemakers to the West Coast, where they became the movers and shakers of early Hollywood. Edison, who was in a close friendship with the antisemitic industrialist Henry Ford, nevertheless resisted falling into anti-Jewish stereotyping in most instances, although he was not impervious to the widespread exaggerations about Jewish economic power in Europe and was not above indulging in antisemitism in some of his early films — as in Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907), which you can see below. “There is also evidence that Edison’s financial legacy helped to fuel the Institute for Historical Review, a movement dedicated to denying the Holocaust ever occurred. Part of Edison’s fortune devolved upon a grandniece, Jean Edison-Farrel, who in turn willed her money to the IHR. Edison is often cited by the Journal of Historical Review as one of the great men who supported the cause of Holocaust-denial.” --Saul Jay Singer, Jewish Press

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.